I have always, dealt with life events, thoughts, feelings and emotions through writing. I’ve been able to process everything in the written word. Whether that is texts to a friend, notes in a notepad, through journalism or long email exchanges, being able to eloquently get my thoughts down on paper has always been a strength I’ve worked towards. I have also, like most adults across the world, been an extensive user of social media. I have used social networking sites to share those words, but also to communicate with friends across the world and to build connections with others. It has at times been a massive comfort to me. When I first started understanding my dyspraxia diagnosis, I loitered around the “dyspraxic teens” forum that was around at the time, I was amazed to find others who were using words to express just how I felt. Words; they are powerful when used well. But when not used so well, they can cause a very different ripple affect.
According to a recent 2019 YouGov poll, 1 in 4 UK adults have experienced some form of cyberbullying. That’s the same statistic we see bandied around relating to mental health, 1 in 4 of us have a mental health problem, they say. I am one of the 1 in in 4. You may be too. But A QUARTER of us have been attacked online. A QUARTER. Just let that sink in for a moment. Like the mental health statistic, you are likely to know someone who has experienced online abuse, is it a friend? Family member? Colleague? Neighbour? I’m telling you, it’s one of them.
I did not expect to add to that statistic. The 2019 cyber bullying club. A club I don’t particularly like being a member of, but I am now part of another 1 in 4. As someone who has hated numbers growing up, preferring words to make sense of things, I’m linked to a damn lot of numbers. But I am not just a statistic. I am a person. I am a daughter. A niece. A friend. A cat owner. And I am the person behind the words.
Cyber bulling is described as abusive behaviour online, whether private messages, twitter, Facebook or Instagram, to purposely harm an individual. This includes negative comments, stalking, harassment, trolling, sending unwanted, repetitive messages and virtual mobbing. I have experienced intense trolling, in the form of harassment and virtual mobbing, when as the name suggests, a mob is encouraged to send constant messages to attack an individual.
Statistics show that young people aged 18-24 are more likely to experience cyberbullying. They are the generation who have grown up with social media, it has been part of their life and a fixture of their childhood. I remember my little sister first getting a Facebook account when she was ten. I work with young people, I understand cyberbullying, deliver sessions about how to keep safe online, encourage conversation about what to do if they feel unsafe and I listen to their concerns. As a youth worker, I know this stuff. Did I expect it to affect me as a 30 year old woman finally feeling life is falling into place? I certainly did not. The YouGov poll outlined that amongst my age group; 25-34 year olds, 33% had disclosed experiencing online bullying. That’s quite a chunk of us in our late 20’s/early 30’s who have also been targeted online. It is really not just a young persons problem. Anyone of us can be a victim, at any time. It’s not just unique to celebrities or those in the public eye either. I read once about an MP receiving a death threats by strangers online, I felt physically sick. You must be some kind of person to deal with that kind of abuse, I thought. I have since learned you don’t have to be any kind of person, any of us can become one of the 1 in 4.
Advice I’ve received this week has been, “ignore them!”, “go off social media”, “Don’t reply” and “whatever you do, don’t feed the troll.” All pretty standard advice, and for those in the 1 in 4 club, I’m sure you’ve heard before. The police are apparently taking trolling more seriously and in April 2019, a white paper was published to propose laws to compel social media companies to take trolling and online abuse more seriously, and to protect us from harm. So, reporting to either the police or the platform where you’ve experienced abuse is always an option. I do wonder though, with these strategies to forget, ignore and essentially hide away from the trolls, are we letting them get what they want? They haven’t got the reaction they crave, but have they got something better? Knowing they’ve got to us? it’s a tough one, but after pondering for a week I’ve concluded that the only real way we’re going to get to these abusive trolls is to speak out about it. Reclaim social media as that safe, supportive and comforting environment I know it can be sometimes. I go to Twitter when I want to vent after a hard day, in a similar way to going down the pub. There is also a quarter of us who have experienced this, who, as we are being silent about the trolling we experience, are unaware they most definitely aren’t alone. I always encourage people to talk about their mental health, “promise me you’ll tell me how you’re feeling”, I say. And we should, as a community talk about cyberbullying and trolling too. Not just as a young persons or celebrities problem, but as a concern for any adult who has a social media account.
Cyberbullying is by far one of the worst and most invasive forms of harassment I have ever experienced. We can block as much as we can, but the words, those words they use repetitively over and over again, will remain implanted on the brain. Deleting the comments, does not delete the memories. This week, and it’s important to understand how this kind of abuse makes you feel, I’ve lost sleep, cried at work, felt that it must be my fault, thought that it was a social media break I needed and worried I’d burdened my friends by talking about it. This is all on top of working a full time job. It breaks people down, and quite frankly our mental health is too precious for that. These bullies want to see this, they want a reaction, to know they’ve got to you. Just as trolls use words to get to us, we can use words to describe our experiences and come together. That device in your pocket; it can be powerful when used well.
We can only begin to solve the problem by talking about it more. Online trolling, is a 21st century problem we really don’t know enough about yet. It’s so new, understanding is only in its infancy. There are so many real human beings, 1 in 4 of us, behind those words on a screen.
(If you’ve experienced online trolling, abuse or harassment, know that you really aren’t alone. Lets reclaim social media as a safe space for everyone to be…)